Complaint about a certain Sunday

Leah Lee, age 21

Leah Lee, age 21

So what is the connection between T S Eliot, Ezra Pound and Teignmouth?

The answer is a young Victorian woman named Leah Laforgue (née Lee), described as “a black-eyed, chestnut-haired Devonshire beauty”. Born in 1861, she was the daughter of Samuel Lee, a well-to-do draper of Teignmouth and her story is quite extraordinary.


Jules Laforgue

Jules Laforgue

She left Teignmouth and England to become governess to the children of Empress Augusta in Berlin. There she met a young Frenchman, Jules Laforgue, who was a Reader to the Empress Augusta and who took English lessons from Leah. Importantly, though, he was also a poet.

It appears they had a whirlwind romance, left Berlin, got married in England at the Church of St Barnabas in Kensington and then returned to Paris where Jules Laforgue could immerse himself in the cultural maelstrom that was Paris in the 1880s.



Leah Lee's grave in Teignmouth Cemetery

Leah Lee’s grave in Teignmouth Cemetery

Less than a year later Jules was dead, having contracted TB. Leah, Jules’s “Petite Personage”, died a year later from the same disease. She was buried in the main cemetery off Exeter Road in Teignmouth.

So ….. T S Eliot and Ezra Pound?

Jules Laforgue was no ordinary poet. He is widely recognised as the father of modern poetry and the creator of “free verse” or “vers libre” as it was known at the time. We only know as much as we do now about Jules Laforgue and his works because Leah had kept all of his manuscripts and had handed them over to a friend, Teodor de Wyzewa, in Jules’s literary circle.

T S Eliot discovered Laforgue in 1908 when he was at Harvard and it changed his life. Eliot said “Laforgue was the first to teach me how to speak, to teach me the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech”. Ezra Pound described Laforgue as “an angel with whom our modern poetic Jacob must struggle,” and “perhaps the most sophisticated of all French poets”; in 1913 he added, “Practically the whole development of the English verse-art has been achieved by steals from the French.”

Even though it is not about Teignmouth (although it mentions a ‘cliff-bound village’) I have included a poem here by Jules Laforgue in recognition of the role that Leah Lee played in ensuring that his work lived on. The poem is a translation by Patricia Terry published in 1958 and comes from Laforgue’s first volume Complaintes.

Complaint about a certain Sunday
(Jules Laforgue)

Man isn’t really so bad, nor woman ephemeral.
Ah! fools cooling your heels at the casino,
All men weep one day, and every woman’s maternal;
Everything’s filial, you know!
It’s only that Fates employ such sorry prejudice
To make us, far and separate, self-exiles,
And blindly calling each other egotists,
And worn out with looking for some unique Anodyne.
Ah! until nature has pity on us,
I’ll take my life monotonous.

In this distant cliff-bound village, towards the bells
Once again I come down, through the piercing stares
Of children out for blessings on tepid rolls;
And then, at home, my wretched heart despairs.
The old roofs’ sparrows chirping at my window
Watch me eat, without appetite, à la carte;
Perhaps they house my dead friends’ souls?
I throw them some bread; as if wounded, they depart!
Ah! until nature has pity on us,
I’ll take my life monotonous.

She left yesterday. Perhaps I mind?
Ah yes! So that’s what hurts!
My life is caught among your faithful skirts!
Her handkerchief swept me along the Rhine …
Alone. — The Sunset holds back its Quadriga’s prancing
In rays where the midges’ ballet is dancing,
Then, toward the soup-smoking roofs, he complains …
And Evening so elusively explains …
Ah! until nature has pity on us,
Must life be so monotonous?

Fans, pointed arches, or for incest – how many eyes,
Since Being first had hopes, demand their rights!
O skies, will the eyes decay like the rest?
Oh, alone! alone! and so cold!
How many Fall afternoons can life digest?
Ennui. cold eunuch, wallows in our dreams!
So, since we’ll never be madrepores again,
We’d better console each other, my fellow men.
And, until nature has pity on us,
Let’s try to live monotonous.

Want to know more?  Check out:

Leah Lee and Jules Laforgue


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.